The other victims in Iraq

By Mokhtar Lamani and He Hany Besada
ARMENIANS, Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Faili Kurds, Shabaks, Palestinians, Baha’is, Mandeans, Yazidis, Turkomans, and Jews, together with their Sunni and Sh’iite neighbors, form an intricate fabric that gave rise to today’s modern Iraqi state. Ironically, they find themselves on the fringes of the Iraqi society. Tragically, last month’s massacre of more than 400 Yazidis – one of Iraq’s numerous religious minorities – and the international coverage it received, has placed the spotlight on a forgotten tale in that country’s ongoing de facto civil war: the continuous and often-underreported violence, which ethnic minority leaders in the country portray as genocide of devastating consequences, against minority populations. Both Iraqi and US officials have blamed the attack on Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants.

The brutal attacks against the Yazidis, who are predominantly ethnic Kurds whose religion blends elements of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism, dating back more than 4,000 years, underscored the fear and the harsh reality that reflect the growing insecurity and anxiety gripping Iraq’s minorities. Minorities are especially vulnerable given the lack of militias to protect their communities, a practice often used by the Shi’ite and Sunni populations. Notwithstanding press coverage of the daily atrocities, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and Shi’ites and, to a lesser extent, Kurds, the plight of the country’s disappearing minorities, who are caught in the cross fire of the ongoing conflict, does not feature high in the international debate on Iraq.

With this tragic state of affairs and an absence of any semblance of normality, peace, and security, allowing both Shi’ites and Sunni extremists to use their discretionary power to bomb churches, massacre and rape women and girls, and engage in the forced conversion of numerous innocent Iraqi minorities every month, hundreds of thousands have fled the country since the overthrow of Saddam’s secular Baathist-led government, and many more are attempting to run for their lives.

In what has become the rule rather than the exception, minority groups across the country are often required to either pay a “protection tax” or face banishment from their ancestral lands or conversion to Islam. The consequence of noncompliance with these ultimatums is usually punishment by death. According to relief agencies and religious minority leaders in the country, the smaller minorities are disappearing quickly. The Sabean-Mandean sect, which follows the teachings of John the Baptist, had a population of 25,000 in 2003. It now numbers less than 5,000.

Meanwhile, United Nations estimates show that approximately 50 percent of Iraqi Christians, who numbered 1 to 2 million at the last count in 2003, may have already left the country for neighboring states – Syria in particular and, to a lesser extent, Jordan, while others have managed to slip into Western states to join their extended families who fled with the toppling of Saddam Hussein. They leave behind the ruins of more than 30 churches destroyed by Islamic extremists.

Given the predicament that minorities find themselves in, and the eventual withdrawal of the US-led coalition from Iraq, many have begun contemplating the seemingly discouraging dilemma of figuring out for themselves what it means to be freed from a tyrannical system of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, only to be left to the mercy of extremists, bent on exterminating all religious and ethnic minorities in the country.

A return to the fundamental understanding of what it means to be an Iraqi, something that involves an innovative approach to fostering a real dialogue among Iraqis, based on common citizenship, offers the best hope of ending the chaos and anarchy that have engulfed Iraqis, including the country’s disappearing minorities. With precious time left, neighboring governments and occupying forces ought to muster enough courage, even to the detriment of their short-term foreign policy objectives, to treat Iraq’s minorities with special care and consideration.

Mokhtar Lamani, a former Arab League special representative in Iraq, is a senior visiting fellow at the International Development Research Centre and a visiting research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada. He Hany Besada is senior researcher at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.